Connecting and Protecting Neighbors

United States, September 20, 2006

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    Roger Burks/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Loyed Lonzo stands in the room where his office will be. Photo: Roger Burks/Mercy Corps

Loyed Lonzo is a man who knows things. And in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, information is a crucial commodity.

A carpenter and draftsman by trade, Lonzo saw two critical needs when he returned to New Orleans late last year: getting hurricane survivors the information they need and protecting those survivors from identity theft.

Mercy Corps is helping Lonzo on both counts, giving him a $2,500 small business grant to restore his computer systems and get his business, Pre Paid Legal Services, functioning again.

The long road home

Just before Hurricane Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast, Lonzo and his wife evacuated to Shreveport, Louisiana, five hours away from their home in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. They stayed with family members there for a few weeks, but Lonzo soon felt a calling to return to what was left of his home.

Nothing along the long drive back to New Orleans could have prepared him for what he found upon arriving back in his neighborhood: collapsed houses and streets choked with tons of debris. There were even boats and barges washed ashore, some still lodged in what remained of his neighbors' homes.

His own house was destroyed, unlivable. His computer, files and other office items were waterlogged and damaged beyond repair. Dazed, he and his wife drove to the houses of some other family members and found that they, too, were uninhabitable.

On that initial, discouraging trip back into New Orleans, Lonzo encountered a few neighbors examining their ruined homes and businesses. They had the same questions that he had: how do we start rebuilding? Where do we find help?

It was then that Lonzo realized what had called him back to New Orleans.

Connecting and protecting

Unable to remain in New Orleans in the ruins of their home, he and his wife moved in with relatives in Laplace, a suburb just a half-hour from the city. It was crucial that Lonzo be within a short drive of the neighbors he intended to help.

"The information that people need to rebuild isn't going out over the news here - or anywhere," Lonzo explains. "All that's broadcast is sensationalism and negativity. I thought I could help bring people the information they need."

Perhaps ironically, Lonzo's efforts were buoyed by something he heard on the radio: a local station advertised Mercy Corps' small business grants program. He immediately applied for the program and received funding for the computer and other supplies he needed to start helping connect people with the information they needed - and protect them against identity theft.

Identity theft occurs when someone wrongfully acquires and uses someone's personal data - such as credit card or mortgage information - and uses it for financial gain. Many factors, such as the slow return of families and lack of public services, have combined to make identity theft a growing problem in New Orleans.

"So many people lost everything to the hurricane, and are now being devastated by opportunists who steal their identities," Lonzo says. "With everything else they're up against, it's a double whammy."

Lonzo is helping the residents of poorer New Orleans neighborhoods get the information they need - and avoid falling prey to identity thieves - by organizing informational meetings in reopened local churches or schools at least twice a week. These meetings bring people together to discuss their problems, find possible solutions and just connect with each other.

"People have to get together, piece together what we know and help each other out," Lonzo says. "This city isn't lost - we can put things back together. So many families are still gone, but they want to get back home."

Lonzo gets contact information from the people who attend his meetings and keeps them constantly updated on developments that might help their families return and rebuild. He's currently working with several different organizations to find, compile and get his neighbors the information - and help - they need.

Beginning to rebuild

As we talk, Lonzo shows me around a house in New Orleans' Gentilly neighborhood. His father-in-law built the house, and this is where he and his wife plan on settling since returning to the Lower Ninth Ward seems impossible in the near future.

"Services like electricity and phone still aren't working in the Lower Ninth, but it's the water that's keeping people out," Lonzo explains. "The drinking water there's still contaminated. So, even if people have a house there to live in, they can't move back."

Even in Gentilly, a few miles east of downtown New Orleans, it doesn't look like many people have moved back. Driving through the area, it seems like maybe one in 50 houses has an occupant or a white FEMA trailer parked out front. Otherwise, houses and businesses remain boarded up, gutted and looted, much as they were in the hurricane's immediate aftermath.

The isolation doesn't faze Lonzo - he knows there are neighbors around. He's talked with them. Still, seeing dozens of houses lay derelict in a major city is disturbing. In the distance, I hear the sounds of saws and hammers. Rebuilding has begun on a small scale.

Lonzo and his family members have taken this house down to the studs, redone the electrical and plumbing, and repaired the hole in the roof the police cut to search for survivors. He's starting to hang the drywall next week.

"This is where the office will be," Lonzo says, making a sweeping motion across the bare room we're standing in.

While it's hard to for me to imagine what it will look like when rebuilt, Loyed Lonzo knows - and he's eager to help his neighbors envision much the same thing.

Mercy Corps' Katrina Rebuilding Fund is helping New Orleanians like Loyed Lonzo recover and rebuild his community. Please consider a gift today.